Documenting a Language

About two months ago, my grandparents arrived from India to celebrate my graduation from high school, and with them, they brought me an opportunity to practice Kannada. However, more interesting than that, was that I found that my grandparents spoke yet another language, called Sankethi. Sankethi descends from Madurai Tamil, and the migration of many Tamilians from Sengottai and Madurai facilitated the formation of this language. Sankethi is spoken by two communities in Karnataka. The two varieties are Kaushika and Bettadpura, where Kaushika Sankethi has grown away from Tamil the most.

Due to the dearth of information on Sankethi on the internet, such as the rather sparse information given in the Wikipedia article, I decided to document Sankethi for linguistic purposes. From what I’ve seen, it is merely acknowledged that Sankethi exists. As it happens, my grandparents speak Kaushika Sankethi, and I have extended family members who speak Bettadpura Sankethi. Currently, I’m getting Kaushika Sankethi done. I’ve been recording lists of nouns, verbs, and particles, as well as verb forms. Granted, it might be incomplete, as I’m assuming that grammar is almost identical to that of Kannada and Tamil. In the future, I’d like to submit the document to a linguistics professional and see if it’s a valid set of information. I’m not going to post the full document at the moment, seeing as it’s incomplete and I’d like to proofread it a few times, once it’s nearing completion.

In my search for info on Sankethi, I also discovered that there exists a Dravidian language in Pakistan, called Brahui. It borrows heavily from Arabic and Persian vocabulary, to the point that I can’t even pick out what’s supposed to be Dravidian. The Brahui language seems like it would be interesting to research, so I’d like to study it in the future, if someone doesn’t beat me to it first! If you’re interested in hearing what it sounds like, there’s a video published by the Brahui Language Board, at the University of Balochistan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_Oj1poUWXA. Oddly enough, it used to be written in the Arabic script, but now it is written in a modified Latin script, much like Vietnamese’s current form.

If you, a relative, or a friend speaks a language with little documentation, you should try to write down as much information as you can. Minority languages with little to standardization and smaller communities are much more susceptible to language death. Even if the language will die in the future, there is no wrong in trying to keep it alive. Giving up is what really kills a language. I am thankful that there is enough literature and information on Kannada that if I was so unable to teach my children, I could send them to a school where they could learn. However, some other languages, like Sankethi or Brahui, are not so fortunate.

I’ll be posting more updates on my research and I hope you found this interesting! Don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!

The Right to Struggle and a Starter’s Kit for Language Protection

Recently, I had someone say to me, “Language is dynamic. To hold on to the past is simply being stubborn.” The conversation was about the pronunciation of various loanwords in English, but it brought up a completely different topic in my mind. There are many people in the world who think that working to promote a minority language is meaningless because it’s going to die anyway or that English is more important anyway. As much as I don’t like to admit it, language death is something we, those who seek to promote language survival and general study, must readily accept as a possibility. But that doesn’t mean a language should die lying down.

Language death is indeed preventable. At least, with a great deal of effort and support. Hebrew did it and Catalan has made a significant rebound in recent years with an upsurge in local support. Even Yucatec Maya shows signs of a return to a healthier state. But most importantly, you need to be realistic and ambitious at the same time. Never ever let other people tell you that the cause isn’t worth it. Just like nothing stopped major civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, you have to be prepared to withstand anything and everything. I’m not saying I’m a pro at this or anything, but I’m fairly certain I can talk about what language advocate should aspire to do. Now, prepare for a crash course in how to start your very own campaign to protect a language!

1. Know the language. Or at least get started on it, anyway. You can’t possibly have a legitimate campaign without knowing the language. There are plenty of resources for all sorts of languages. Just look around on the internet. You should have at least a conversational command of the language to really get yourself and others moving.

2. Know your limits. And break some too. Everyone has their limitations and there are things we can’t do alone. Get your friends together to bring awareness to your work and what you want to do with. But you need to be ambitious as well. Try not to second-guess yourself about what’s right and wrong. Take risks and be willing to make mistakes.

3. Read up on other language revival efforts. It never hurts to learn from experts. Highly recommended histories to read are the revival of Hebrew, Catalan, and Basque, which all have very important lessons to be learned from.

4. Don’t restrict yourself to one place. You should be prepared to bring your advocacy anywhere and everywhere you go. A language can’t take back its place in the modern world if it doesn’t exist outside of its place of origin. People need to know about it too. The whole point is to give the language its presence in the world back. You can’t expect others to take your campaign seriously if they don’t know about it.

5. Consider other languages as well. (Two meanings to this one) a.)There is a very real possibility that the language that you choose to advocate has a “negative” history for certain people. Be considerate of other people’s feelings about it and don’t expect everyone to be your biggest fan or supporter. Don’t give people a reason (even if it’s not a rational or fair one) to hate on the language. For example, you’re obviously not going to advocate Welsh in certain parts of Britain, especially pro-English areas, because Welsh was formerly (and to some extent still is) associated with rebellion and public dissent. b.) If you’re really stuck on what language to promote, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to promote a language like Spanish. The United States does have a very large Spanish-speaking population, but advocacy for Spanish is different. It encourages people to reach out to a different demographic that has a very strong political presence in the country, and you might promote it because you feel that it is unfairly repressed or discouraged as an object of study.

6. Get other people involved. Like I’ve said at least a thousand times in other posts, language is a social experience. Encourage your friends to advocate the language with you. Find native speakers or people who come from that background. Obviously be polite about it, and explain that it’s for a good cause.

7. Finally: never get down yourself when you’re not making progress. Remember, bringing awareness to a language is hard work. It is very important you feel motivated, even when you’re aware that there is a chance that you will fail. But that’s a part of being an advocate. The failure of a language to survive brings awareness to it in death, in much the same way that when a person dies, people think about them much more once they’ve passed on. People don’t treasure what they have until it’s gone. But obviously, you should be trying to keep the language alive anyway!

And to the speakers of minority languages everywhere: Remember, it is your right to struggle. The right to your ethnic or linguistic background is as much a human and natural right as the freedoms of speech, expression, or religion, or anything else. To Americans (and hopefully the rest of the world), this should resonate. Our country is founded on the pursuit of happiness and treasuring of personal freedom to be who we want to be. Never let anyone tell you any different. Even if you die trying, the world will know you and the cause you fight for.

This was a bit of a more empowerment and encouragement piece, even though I haven’t written anything recently. Please remember to share this on Facebook and Tumblr!